Graduates vying for special speaker

Published 12:00 am Saturday, April 3, 2010

By David Vitrano


LAPLACE – Continuing the interest he has shown in the nation’s students since taking office over a year ago, President Barack Obama recently created the Race to the Top High School Commencement challenge. Both East St. John and West St. John high schools have picked up the gauntlet with vigor.

Each school submitted an application, consisting of four essay questions. Both schools also opted to include a two-minute video with their submission. (Watch for the videos in the multimedia section at The prize is to have the president himself speak at the winning school’s graduation ceremony.

But to the principals at each school, the contest was more than just a simple application with a hoped-for outcome.

East St. John Principal Patricia Triche said, “The thing I liked about it is it makes them feel like nothing is impossible.”

She said when the teachers saw the completed video and the faces and expressions of their students, they welled with pride, many to the point of tears.

Across the river in Edgard, West St. John High School Principal Erica Merrick experienced similar feelings.

“I just thought it was a really good opportunity,” she said. “To me it just brought the seniors together and gave them a chance to brag about their school.”

While East St. John had a professional come in to shoot and edit their video, the West St. John video was an in-house production. Shayla Guidry, west bank master technology teacher whose digital media students edited the video, along with Irene Hebert, outreach liaison, spearheaded the mission to bring Obama to Edgard. They experienced first hand the excitement of the students at the prospect of a visit from the President.

“The students kind of felt like they’d been looking forward to graduation for so long and with the first black president in office, they’d be so excited to begin the next chapter of their lives with such a memorable event,” said Hebert.

And although administrators at both schools feel the students have already benefited from the process in general, they also know the effect winning the contest would have on the school and the surrounding community.

“We’ll be so excited if President Obama comes here,” said Merrick. “We’ll probably have to move the graduation to a larger venue.”

Hebert also relished the thought of an Obama appearance. “I think it would make (the students) look at graduation day completely differently,” she said.

Triche believed the east bank students would have a similar reaction. “They would just absolutely go crazy,” she said.

Nonetheless, each principal realized actually winning the contest was a long shot. After all entries are received, the White House will choose six semi-finalists, and those schools will be featured on the White House’s Web site. The public will then vote on three finalists, and the president himself will choose the winner. Despite the fact that the public participation part of the process may put suburban and rural schools somewhat at a disadvantage, the students, teachers and administrators remain optimistic.

Said Triche, “I felt like we had no choice but to try.”